A Memorial to North First Street

by Don Rittner

It’s a fact that natural landscapes change over periods of time. What you see today is not always as it was. Troy, 10,000 years ago, was covered by glacial Lake Albany.

That’s also true for human created landscapes.

Just north of the Green Island Bridge begins North First Street. No wider than an alley, this half mile route runs parallel to, and is slightly east of River Street, crossing Hutton, Hoosick, Vanderheyden, Jay, Rensselaer, and ends at North Street.

North First represents a classic piece of Troy’s urban history. This cobblestone street was lined with homes of working class Trojans for more than 150 years.

North First is the last true cobblestone street in Troy. I mean native cobblestones, not the granite or belgium blocks commonly referred to as cobblestone. Native cobblestones are smooth rounded stones produced by glacial activity, or the bottom of ancient river or stream beds. Cobblestones were laid down on dirt streets and pounded together tightly to form a hard surface. The curbs were blocks of sandstone or shale.

Troy boasted in 1925 that 73 of 103 miles of streets in the city were paved: 22 miles of granite block, 20 miles of brick, 4 miles of wood block, and the rest various products. Belgian Block was introduced in 1854 (on First Street). Before this, streets were either dirt (stone chips mixed in) or native cobblestone like the ones found on North First.

North First is one of the "new" streets laid in Troy as it began its rise as an industrial center. Troy had just become a city only 20 years prior to it being ‘laid and pitched,’ probably around the same time as North Second and North Third Streets (Fifth and Sixth Avenues) in 1836. This began the development of the area called Middleburgh that ran from Grand Division Street to the now buried Piscawen Kill (Middleburgh Street). Basically it was all the farm of Jacob I. Vanderheyden.

As I retraced the entire route of North First by foot, I grabbed a year out of the city directory to see who called this street home.

In 1871, 121 Trojans lived at more than 40 addresses along North First. Add a good dose of children and you have a sizable population.The adults represented a range of working class professions: bakers, boilermakers, brass and brush makers, carpenters, clerks, coach painters, drivers, an engineer, file cutters, furnace men, harness makers, masons, millers, molders, painters, porters, sash and shoe makers, stone cutters, teamsters, wagon makers, watchmen, general laborers, and 16 widows.

Forty were laborers followed by carpenters (7), shoe makers (5), and teamsters (5 ) as the most common. With names like Kelly, Donohue, and Sullivan, it’s clear a large Irish population called North First Street their home. While walking this route anyone with a good imagination can appreciate the hustle and bustle of neighborhood activity that occurred there.

The entire length of North First still survives although much of it suffers from neglect. You can see evidence of cobblestones and stone curbs along the entire route, but except for one location, there is no evidence that a neighborhood ever existed.

The small section south of Hutton where the street begins was called Rock Alley. Only a few people lived there.

Between Hutton and Hoosick, North First was later paved with yellow brick. The backs of two churches, a warehouse, and carriage house, are all you see, with no evidence of homes. In 1871, 28 families were there.

Hoosick to VanderHeyden is altered. The back of a 1920’s boarding house for working women can be seen. North First is paved up to Jacob Vanderheyden’s lot, also paved, and now a parking lot for the newly opened Standard building. I’m surprised preservationists didn’t object to paving the site of one of Troy’s founder’s. It would make a great public archeology project. Granite block pavement extends to Vanderheyden Street, mixed with natural cobblestone at the end. Apparently only five or so people lived on this stretch in 1871.

Vanderheyden to Jay is the most neglected. Hoosick side is a parking lot, but cobblestones are evident on the south end and throughout. The street is filled with garbage and brush making it almost impassable. No evidence of homes but around 17 families did live there.

From Jay to Rensselaer is the best example of this historic cobblestone street. Though the back is caving in, 162 North First is still standing, and was occupied as late as 1961. The northern portion (lots) up to Rensselaer are vacant but may become a parking lot soon. Around 17 families lived here . I would like to see this section of North First preserved in its entirety and not paved. This would also be a great place for a public archeology program.

Rensselaer to North Street is interesting. Remarkably, 170 North First still exists and is occupied by a retired worker - the last occupant of North First Street. Jeremiah Hall, a shoemaker on River Street owned and lived in this house in 1871 with a boarder Patrick Hall, a boilermaker.

Further down, among rubbage and an abandoned car, is some evidence of cobblestones. The western most part of Troy’s famous Mt. Olympus ends here and you can see the old Wheeler Brothers iron and brass foundry on top of it. Two frame buildings are near the end and may have been the northern most homes on the street. North First ends at the Ale House (a great place for lunch) on North Street.

The city is now constructing a bike trail along the river. I see no reason why parts of this historic street cannot be cleaned up, restored, and made part of the bike trail. It probably would have to be a volunteer effort. This would be a tribute to the working people that made Troy an industrial giant during the last century.

Join Don at Clements Frame Shop on July 31 to celebrate his new book on Lansingburgh.

©1999 Don Rittner

Contact Don at drittner@aol.com or 251 River Street.